Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Borgias


(1475-1507, Cardinal from 1493-1498)

Cesare Borgia by Bembo in Galleria dell' Accademia Carrara
Cesare Borgia by Bembo in
Galleria dell' Accademia

If any of the Borgias are remembered today, it is two of the children of Alexander VI who are known, if only for the evil that their names signify: Cesare, murderer and adventurer, and Lucrezia, poisoner. Both descriptions tell too much and too little.

A hint of the power, charm, and ruthlessness of Cesare Borgia can be seen in a portrait of him, probably painted around 1500, by Gianfrancesco Bembo.

The portrait is of a handsome man, unsmiling, dark, menacing, eyes fixed on the distance. One can sense the validity of Baluze's (a contemporary observer) comment: "The Pope loves his son — and has great fear of him."

Cesare was the oldest son of the children born to Alexander and Vannozza de Catanei, during the height of Alexander's tenure as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia.

Thus, Cesare was the first child of the second family begun by Rodrigo. His first set of known illegitimate children are from one or more unknown women, and began with Pedro Luis (1462-1488), the first Duke of Gandia, elevated to that duchy in Spain by his father's machinations.

Vannozza Cattanei (Hachette)
Vannozza Cattanei

In 1480, Pope Sixtus IV produced a papal bull that dispensed with Cesare having to prove that he was of legitimate birth, allowing him to receive "benfices," income from various offices to which Sixtus appointed him. At the age of seven, Cesare was given the title of prebend of the cathedral chapter of Valencia, then shortly thereafter apostolic protonotary, or dignitary of the papal chancellery. Both of these offices carried benfices, that is stipends. By the age of nine, Cesare was also the rector of Gandia, provost of Albar and Jativa, and finally the treasurer of Cartagena. These appointments, of course, were granted by the influence of his father, Rodrigo, and were ecclesiastical properties in Valencia, thus ensuring that these properties remained in the control of the Borgia family.

Cesare had a younger brother, Vannozza's second child, Giovanni, and when the stepbrother, Pedro Luis, First Duke of Gandia died, Rodrigo made Giovanni the Second Duke of Gandia. Thus, Rodrigo decided that Cesare would have an ecclesiastical career, strengthening the Borgia influence in the Church. Giovanni, the younger brother, may have been, as we shall see, one of the first of Cesare's victims.

As Cloulas describes it, Cesare's education was carefully planned by Rodrigo. He was brought up in Rome until he was 12, educated by tutors. He then was sent to Perugia, in the care of a Valencian tutor who later became a cardinal, a reward for his tutorial services. Cesare studied law and the humanities at the university, then went to the University of Pisa to study theology. By the end of these studies, his father, now Pope Alexander VI, made him a cardinal.

In 1493, after attending a family dinner with his mother, Vannozza, and his older brother Cesare, Giovanni, the Second Duke of Gandia, disappeared. He had ridden off into the dusk with his brother and friends and servants, took his leave of them, and rode off toward the papal palace accompanied by a groom and an unknown man in a festive mask. He was never seen alive again. The following evening, while searching for Giovanni, searchers came upon a witness who had seen two men throw a body into the Tiber. The river was dragged by some three hundred searchers, and, after working all night, the body was found at noon on the next day. He was still dressed in his finery, still had a purse of thirty ducats, but his throat had been slit and his body was hacked with other vicious wounds.

Upon hearing of the death of his son, Alexander went mad with grief, declaring that he had resolved "to amend our life and reform the Church. We renounce all nepotism. We will begin the reform with ourselves and so proceed through all levels of the Church till the whole work is accomplished." The temporarily sincere Alexander could not live up his pronouncement, and soon slipped into his old ways, ignoring his promises. It was just as well, as the clergy, no more ready for reform than he, kept to their own programs of politics and pleasure.

The murderer was never discovered, but about a year after Giovanni's death, when Cesare had thrown off the robes of a cardinal for secular power, the rumor spread that Cesare had killed his brother. The motive was supposed to have been Cesare's jealousy of his brother's secular success, and his desire to acquire Giovanni's titles and honors for himself. As it was, there was little to be gained by Cesare by killing his brother, since Giovanni had a son, also named Giovanni, who immediately became the Third Duke of Gandia. The motive could have been for revenge by a wronged husband, which is consistent with the sexual excesses of members of the Borgia family. For once, it appeared that Cesare might not have been the murderer, but the later behavior of Cesare made it difficult for the Romans to believe that he had not been involved. Nonetheless, it was clear that Giovanni's death cleared the way for Cesare to become a layman once again, and to be given princely positions that would eclipse the honors given his younger brother by his father. The belief that Cesare was the murderer was argued by the contemporary historians Sanudo and Guicciardini, who were convinced that such a perfect murder could only be carried out by that genius of intrigue, Cesare Borgia.

In 1498, Cesare was eager to leave holy orders and assume a princely position. Even though Cesare was still a cardinal, Alexander attempted to arrange a marriage between Cesare and Carlotta, the daughter of the King of Naples. Such a union would bring the wealthy city of Tarento with her as a dowry. In order to speed up the negotiations, Cesare renounced his holy orders, much to his delight, and was made the Duke of Valentois. However, the King of Naples had other ambitions for his daughter, and declined the pope's offer. Alexander, not to be thwarted, formed an alliance with the new king of France, Louis XII, who claimed both the kingdoms of Milan and Naples, having inherited them from his predecessor. In return for annulling Louis's marriage, the French king would provide Cesare with a princess, who eventually was Charlotte d'Albert, daughter of the Duke of Guyenne. The dowry was large, the marriage duly solemnized, and, according to a letter written by Cesare to his father, consummated eight times on their wedding night.

Cesare, now the ally of the French king, became a leading general of Louis XII, winning important victories in the Romagna, a city state adjacent to the papal states. He entered Rome in triumph in February, 1500, dragging behind him, in golden chains, Caterina Sforza, the Lady of two of cities he had conquered. She was imprisoned, and would have died in chains had not the French interceded for her release.

The Jubilee year of 1500 began the period of greatest decadence for Alexander and Cesare. Cesare amused the throngs of Romans by killing five bulls in St. Peter's Square, making him the hero of Rome. The loyal Burchard describes several scenes of debauchery during these early months of 1500. Not only was there the callous shooting of unarmed criminals by Cesare, but Burchard recounts a scene in which Alexander, Cesare, and Lucrezia watched with amusement as fifty Roman harlots coupled with fifty palace servants, competing for prizes for "best performance" awarded by Alexander. A drunken reveler had his tongue and hand cut off for mocking Cesare. A Venetian who had written a pamphlet criticizing Cesare was sentenced to drowning in the Tiber. Gregorvarius reports that Cesare, replying to pleas for mercy for his victims, said, "Rome is accustomed to write and speak, but I will teach such people to take care."

But Cesare was not satisfied only with a return to Rome in triumph. Jubilee gifts went into his coffers, and Alexander shared with him the huge sums obtained from the creation of nine new cardinals, each paying thousands of ducats. Still, the Borgias were not satisfied. Deciding that Lucrezia's second husband, the Duke of Bisceglie, had lost his value to them — France and Spain had united to topple Bisceglie's family in Naples — Cesare strangled him as he was recovering from wounds from an earlier attempt on his life by Cesare's henchmen. In all likelihood, Alexander did not plan the murder, but his son's initiative allowed him to arrange a third marriage for Lucrezia.

After Alexander's death in 1503, Cesare fled to Spain, and a little more than three years after his father's death, died there fighting bravely as a mercenary.

After a few months into his marriage to Charlotte in 1498, Cesare never saw his wife again, nor their daughter, Louise. Charlotte, however, remained loyal to her husband's memory. She and her daughter entered a convent, and lived pious lives until the death of Charlotte. Louise eventually married and had six children, giving rise to a line of competent soldiers. Cesare's two illegitimate children, Camilla and Girolamo, suffered different fates. The daughter, Camilla, became an abbess, widely respected for her piety. The son, Girolamo, became a violent character, responsible for at least one murder and probably several others. He died, leaving two daughters, whose fates are unknown. Cesare's propensity for murder apparently ends with his illegitimate son.

Strangely, Cesare's lasting legacy is that he served as the model for Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, the leader who promotes himself solely through the strength of his own will. When we hear of the adjective "Machiavellian," we are once more in the presence of Cesare Borgia.

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